Last updated: September 2006
Away from the wholesome image projected by the marketing companies, bottled water contains a whole host of environmental and social problems. Lindsay Whalen goes to the source.
Extraction leads to water shortages, transporting it contributes to climate change and disposing of the packaging releases toxic chemicals. Add to that the extortionate price-tag and involvement of unethical multinationals and seeds of doubt about the great bottled water scam may start to sprout.
Let’s start at the beginning. Bottling plants are responsible for water shortages around the world.
In North America, problems have been in Texas and the Great Lakes region, where farmers and fishers who are dependent on water for their livelihoods are being affected.(1) Nestlé has also been criticised for pumping water in a historic mineral water park in São Lourenco, Brazil for its Pure Life brand.(2)
The company has been blamed for ruining the healing springs which used to attract tourists to the town.(2) Trees close to the borehole, where Nestlé pumps over half a million litres a day, are reported to be dying.(2)
The town has been pursuing Nestlé through the courts for five years, and until this is resolved Nestlé continues to pump.(2)
Once the pumping has occurred, the water must be transported to the consumer. Transporting bottled water around in the UK is estimated to produce around 33,200 tons of carbon dioxide emissions- this is equivalent to the annual energy consumption of 6,000 homes.(4)
Vittel travels approximately 400 miles (645km), and Evian 460 miles (740km), to reach London from France.(5) Scottish bottled waters like Deeside, Highland Spring and Strathmore are travelling similar distances.
Waitrose and Fresh & Wild have been found to stock water from Fiji that boasts that its source is ‘separated by over 2,500 km of open Pacific from the nearest continent.’(5) That means that this water is travelling about 10,000 miles to get to the UK!(5)
In stark contrast, transporting water through underground pipes to household taps is environmentally benign, according to a new report by the Earth Policy Index (EPI).(1)
Janet Larson, its director of research, said: “Transporting water around the globe involves burning massive quantities of fossil fuels and thus emitting greenhouse gases and other pollutants into the atmosphere. This contrasts starkly with tap water, which is distributed through an energy efficient infrastructure.”(1)
Disposing of it
It doesn’t get any better at the packaging end either. Bottled water is normally packaged in PET, which is a crude oil derivative. The EPI found that 2.7 million tons of plastic are used to bottle water each year worldwide.(1)
Only about 10% of plastic bottles are currently recycled in the UK.(4) The rest go to landfill where they take 450 years to break down,(4) all this time releasing polluting gases into the environment.
Ethical Consumer magazine wrote to all of the companies asking them about the recycled plastic content in their plastic bottles. Only Frank, Harrogate Spa and Shannon Minerals gave clear answers, admitting they did not use any recycled plastic in their bottles. The other companies did not give straight answers, but it is likely they do not use recycled plastic content either.
Britvic Soft Drinks, Coca-Cola and Nestlé are all members of the Industry Council for Packaging and the Environment (INCPEN). This ‘research’ group is funded by industry and appears keen to condemn every environmental initiative aimed at reducing packaging, unless it’s beneficial to company profits.
INCPEN is currently engaged in counteracting the Women’s Institute’s campaign which urged members to take unnecessary packaging back to the supermarkets on the 20th June.(28)
Even without the environmental problems, you have to wonder why you’re paying a huge mark-up on something that’s colourless, tasteless and odourless.
As an ex-chairmen of the Perrier Corporation once stated: “It struck me that all you had to do is take the water out of the ground and then sell it for more than the price of wine, milk, or, for that matter, oil.”(29) In the UK, tap water is treated to ensure that it’s safe to drink, and is subject to more safety regulations than bottled.(1)
A plethora of recent evidence suggests that we can’t tell the difference anyway. The Drinking Water Inspectorate (DWI) has found that, if tap water has been chilled, most of us can’t taste the difference between bottled and tap.(6)
Similarly, a panel of taste-testers for Health Which? liked the tap water as much as the bottled waters.(6) The wine writer Richard Ehrlich also liked tap water better in a blind tasting which included Evian and Volvic.(4) He praised his winning glass of Thames Water as “so pure and neutral it was almost sweet.”(4)
The picture of health imagery peddled by the companies also doesn’t stand up to scrutiny.
For example, a connection between health and the companies’ products is clearly implied in advertising slogans such as: ‘the natural choice for the family’ (Buxton), ‘Pura mind, pura body’ (Aqua-Pura) and ‘fuel your Volcanicity’ (Volvic).
Yet a study by the Consumers’ Association found that the levels of minerals in the water were so low, that you’d have to drink litres of the stuff to make a significant difference.(6)
“The French Senate even advises people who drink bottled mineral water to change brands frequently because the added minerals are helpful in small amounts but may be dangerous in higher doses.”(1)
The Consumers’ Association also failed to find even one credible source for the oft-repeated ‘fact’ that you should drink eight glasses of water a day.(6)
Many of the brands on the table also had flavoured versions. Buxton, Cool Water, Pennine Spring, Shape, Strathmore, Vittel and Volvic were all found to contain flavouring in their so-called pure drinks.
There are some pretty undesirable companies involved in the ‘pure’ water scam too. Nestlé’s Perrier brand of bottled water has recently stopped sponsoring a long-running ‘Award for Comedy’ at the Edinburgh Fringe.
Comedians including Rob Newman, Emma Thompson, Steve Coogan and Victoria Wood called for a boycott of the event in 2001 and the alternative Tap Water Awards were organised as a result. Boycott supporters have organised demonstrations outside the Perrier event to highlight Nestlé’s aggressive marketing of breastmilk substitutes in the Third World.
Nestlé’s behaviour contravenes the International Code of Marketing of Breastmilk Substitutes, and according to the United Nations Children’s Fund one and a half million lives could be saved every year by reversing the decline in breastfeeding.(8)
Another successful brand in the UK is Highland Spring, which proudly proclaims that its water is drawn from a protected underground source in the northern foothills of the Ochil Hills overlooking the Strathearn Valley in Perthshire, Scotland. This heritage is also reflected in the tartan sashes on its bottles.
It is the only bottled water in the report to have organic status for its catchment area. Yet the ultimate owner is the Al-Tajir family, based in Dubai.(10) Mahdi al-Tajir, a former ambassador for the United Arab Emirates to the UK, is estimated to be worth a total of £2.2 billion.(11) He is said to have “metal trading, oil and gas interests and a large property portfolio.”(11) These interests will have a high negative impact on climate change.
Coca-Cola is also involved in the sector with the Malvern brand, but it was its Dasani brand that hit the headlines in 2004. Coca-Cola’s new ‘pure’ bottled water was exposed as tap water, leading some to draw parallels with Delboy’s Peckham Spring.
In the BBC serial ‘Only Fools and Horses,’ the intrepid entrepreneur sold tap water from Peckham to unsuspecting consumers as ‘Peckham Spring’ for a considerable mark-up. In the real world, Coca-Cola really did try to market the reverse osmosis used in many modest domestic water purification units as a “highly sophisticated purification process” based on Nasa spacecraft technology.(9)
The brand is still successful in the US, but lost all credibility and was pulled from the shelves in the UK.
Access to water
It is worth remembering that whilst businessmen are making their fortunes out of bottled water, 1.1 billion people across the world do not have access to clean water, and 6,000 children die every day from water-related diseases.
Rich nations have committed themselves to the Millennium Development Goal of halving the number of people without access to water by 2015, but it is unlikely that this target will be met. The World Development Movement is campaigning for the role of the public sector in achieving this goal to be recognised.
It wants the government to stop promoting water privatisation, and instead increase aid to water sectors in the Majority World, as well as political and financial support to extend good practice within and amongst public water utilities.(12) See issue 99 for a feature on water privatisation.
Recycle and reuse
In light of all the evidence, avoiding buying bottled water is a good choice, especially if plastic recycling facilities are not available where you live.
Aquaid, Clear Water, Harrogate Spa, Highland Spring and Perrier offer water in glass bottles which sidesteps these issues as glass is easily recyclable. Re-filling a bottle with chilled tap water and carrying it around in your bag saves purchasing lots of bottles that need to be recycled. Water for Health Alliance, a loose affiliation of water companies and public health charities is campaigning for water fountains to provide free drinking water in public spaces.(30)
This was, after all, the norm in Victorian England, and continues to be so in the US, Canada and parts of Europe.
- Environmental Justice Foundation is dedicated to protecting the natural environment, and its 'White Gold- the true cost of cotton' report can be downloaded from www.ejfoundation.org or Tel: 020 7359 0440
- Waste Watch's website (www.wastewatch.org.uk) contains an A-Z search facility for details on recycling everything, or give them a ring on 020 7549 0300
- WaterAid is a charity providing clean water solutions in the Majority World. www.wateraid.org or 020 7793 4500
- Women's Institute is campaigning on unnecessary packaging. www.womens-institute.co.uk or 020 7371 9300
1 ‘Bottled Water: Pouring Resources Down the Drain,’ Earth Policy Institute 02/06
2 ‘Nestlé’s bottled water business exposed,’ Baby Milk Action 2006
3 ‘Eau, no: Clean, healthy and pure? Hardly, Bottled water is killing the planet,’ The Independent 12/2/06
4 ‘Environmental insanity’ to drink bottled water when it tastes as good from the tap,’ The Independent 29/6/06
5 ‘Thirst for bottled water fuels food miles,’ The Food Commission 3/11/04
6 ‘Bottled Water, Fluid for Thought,’ Which? Extra 08/04
8 www.ibfan.org, viewed on 4/7/06
9 ‘Things get worse with Coke,’ The Guardian 20/3/04
10 Highland Spring press release 2005
11 The Times Online Rich List 2006
12 www.wdm.org.uk,viewed on 4/7/06
13 Conversation with Belu representative 4/7/06
14 Cargill press release, www.cargill.com 1/2/05
15 Roots 05/03
16 ‘Don’t be Fooled,’ Living Green 2003
17 Multinational Monitor 08/03
18 ‘White Gold- the true cost of cotton,’ Environmental Justice Foundation 2005
19 Cargill press release, www.cargill.com 6/10/05
20 Feeling Blue Seeing Red: Boycotts 28/6/06
21 Colombia Solidarity Campaign 28/6/06
22 www.bigcampaign.org 27/6/06
23 jeboycottedanone.net 13/10/05
24 Save our Earth 7/2/06
25 Conversation with company representative 12/7/06
26 http://indiaresource.org 3/2/06 27 ECRA shop survey 06/06
28 www.womens-institute.org.uk, viewed on 30/6/06
29 ‘Bottled water: Understanding a Social Phenomenon,’ Ferrier,C. 04/01
30 ‘Think before you drink,’ The Guardian 13/7/06
31 Conversation with company representatives 18/7/06 32 Email from Save Our Earth 7/2/06